C-22 National Security Committee of Parliamentarians Redux: The Good, the Bad, and Avoiding the Ugly
By all accounts, bill C-22 will complete third reading in the Commons next week and will be off to the Senate. But things have not been going all that well.
C-22 would create a security-cleared national security committee of parliamentarians (CoP). For the first time in Canadian history, parliamentarians who don’t also happen to be ministers would be entitled to access at least some classified information in reviewing Canada’s national security framework and activities.
This is a big deal.
For one thing, Canada is essentially alone among peer states in shutting parliamentarians entirely out of the secrecy tent.
For another, this idea has been bandied about in one form or another in Canada since the early 1980s. All the official political parties have supported the idea at one point or another. Under the Martin government, an ad hoc parliamentary committee studied the matter and issued a comprehensive report. The government itself released a detailed discussion paper. And there was an actual bill introduced in Parliament – that then died with the Martin government.
So in reading what follows, it is important to keep a clear-eyed view of an essential truth: almost any (proverbial) loaf is better than the non-existent loaf we’ve had to date.
Elsewhere, I have advanced arguments as to why a CoP is important. But no one can reasonably claim it is a panacea. No one can reasonably claim that even the most legally formidable CoP could burrow into the deep recesses of the security services and unearth facts that the security services were determined not to share.
And so everything has always depended on a whole bucketful of good faith: Good faith that the security services are acutely aware that they depend on social licence and they operate in a system built on the rule of law.
And good faith that a CoP will be something other than another venue in which partisan politicians will play piñata. That is, the CoP must be a place willing to embrace complexity, recognize wicked problems and grapple with nuance.
If you scoff at either of these good faith pre-requisites, then there is no point reading further. And in truth, the idea that parliamentarians could and would meet the good faith standard has been greeted very skeptically in a lot of different places over a good number of years.
In some large measure, C-22 constitutes a suspension of this worry. And in large measure, that worry is superseded by realization that all of us (the security services included) would benefit from a more sophisticated parliamentary and public discussion of national security.
But aspects of the worry lurk, and they explains the structure of C-22.
So where did we start on that structure? Let’s be clear: even when first introduced in Parliament, C-22 was stronger than its Martin government predecessor. And while there is some variation of opinion on this, I believed (and continue to believe) that on paper it was (and is) stronger than its Australian and UK analogues. (Whether it will in practice depends on that intangible: the bucketful of good faith).
In other words, C-22 was (and is) at least a half loaf. But, of course, any half loaf is…missing a half loaf. And so the parliamentary process is where parliamentarians have a chance to consider a law project. And I am grateful and appreciative when those parliamentarians call on those of us who are struggling to research and analyze these kind of things.
And so my views (expressed with colleagues) have been: good law project; important development in Canadian national security accountability; has shortcomings that can be fixed. Put another way: C-22 was a Volkswagen, with some doubtful emissions control results. With amendments, it could be a BMW.
Without rehearsing all of those shortcomings, the key issue has been: will the CoP have a sufficient entitlement to see the information it needs to do its job? For more on that question, see here. My view has been that in its first reading version, there were excessive limits on the CoPs access to information that opened the door to too many roadblocks, even when everyone was operating in good faith. That is because even people operating in good faith can disagree. And good faith disagreements over sharing of classified information may be the biggest challenge in national security law and policy. So it would be nice to obviate that inevitable problem by giving the CoP indisputable access.
When C-22 was vetted and amended at committee stage of enactment, we actually got there: full access, except Cabinet confidences. This put the CoP on the same footing as our existing expert review bodies for CSIS and CSE. I think this is wise and justifiable (see here).
But the manner by which the legislative committee got to these amendments was, well, confusing and did not necessarily reflect the intent of all members of the committee. That is, there were politics in play. And so what had to that point seemed to me to be a very high-calibre legislative deliberation (reportedly) frayed into something less high-calibre.
Predictably, the government put back the legal restraints on access to information when the bill came back to the House on report stage. Now to be clear: they didn’t put everything back. They definitely headed in the right direction. For one thing, they did not restore fully the list of automatic information exclusions. For instance, military intelligence is no longer automatically excluded from CoP consideration. But yes, CoP access to information can be carefully controlled by the executive.
And so the question is: what to do now?
Avoiding the Ugly
I’ll offer a few oblique thoughts, for what they’re worth. Above all else, let’s cool the jets. C-22 is not like other laws. With most other laws, politicians can irritate each other in Parliament, a bill can pass and the resulting law can still function.
It can still function because it doesn’t depend on the same politicians now sitting on the institution created by the law, and making it work.
The C-22 CoP is radically different. A committee of parliamentarians born in partisan acrimony will die in partisan acrimony. If the opposition parties see the CoP as a unilateral “Liberal project” bereft of any input attributable to their interventions, they will have no political incentive to seeing the CoP succeed. We may be able to overcome this kind of politics – the actual members of the CoP will not be brick-throwers from their parties.
But the absence of cross-party buy-in and an accrual of partisan acrimony reduces the prospect that the CoP will work, at all. The members of the C-22 CoP will need to consolidate around a shared mission, shared professional culture and shared mores of behaviour.
And if they don’t then the skeptics will be proved right: parliamentarians should never be let anywhere near classified information.
So let me step even further outside of my lane: to get there, there needs to be water in everyone’s wine. The amendments that have been made since first reading close some gaps. We aren't that far off from a compromise.
What precise changes would bridge the current political crevasse is a matter best left to those who can speak for their parties. But surely, this is no longer a debate between Volkswagen and BMW. Instead, we may be within reach of a nice Subaru Outback PZEV with the technology package. (Full disclosure: I have an Outback. It plows through snowy roads nicely).
And so the task shall fall to the Senate. It needs to find us an off-ramp from the impasse. And along the way, it needs to be thinking about the day after C-22 becomes law. My key point in this essay of mixed metaphors: A parliamentary process that exhausts the stock of good faith needed to power a CoP cuts off the nose to spite the face.
 There is some element of apple and oranges in making this statement. And much depends on how you weight and offset differences in various areas. (For me, breadth of mandate and access to information are the two most important considerations. I also worry a lot about staff resourcing and coordination with the expert review bodies.) For a table that compares the systems in C-22 (as it was at first reading), UK, Australia and NZ, see here.
But to amplify on my view: I think the subject matter and the institutional remit of the C-22 committee is broader than the UK and Australian analogues. (Although Richard Bolto’s fascinating recent study suggests that Australian committee is increasingly able to review operation matters.)
Access to information appears likely to be better for the C-22 committee than the Australian committee – or at least there appear to be more checks and balances on denials.
It is probably a toss-up as to whether the general language in the UK Act on denying access to information is narrower or broader than the more detailed language in the C-22, but what I like about C-22 is that exclusions don’t reach such things as solicitor client privilege.
(In the UK, my sense is that the access to info is a negotiated outcome in some instances, and so it is hard to compare laws and determine what happens in practice. But what is really important is that UK exclusions from information are discretionary -- that is, the government consciously chooses to deny information. In C-22, there is now a (shorter) list of mandatory exclusions. But that is still a problem: "We can't give you this information, the law stops us. Blame the law". Hard to evolve if that is the standard. Recrafting at least some of these automatic exclusions -- especially the one dealing with law enforcement -- into discretionary exclusions would be a good compromise and something to learn from the UK. Meanwhile, the MoU between the UK ISC and the UK Prime Minister suggests that agency power to deny UK ISC access to information will be exercised “very rarely”. Hint, hint on where another line of compromise over C-22 might be drawn).
The C-22 regime has more built in efforts to try to web the expert bodies and the C-22 committee together. On paper, there is more robust staffing powers in C-22.
The post-2013 UK ISC has some attractive features not reflected in C-22, including the manner in which committee membership is determined. My own view is that these are not all that consequential.